In a 5-4 decision that exemplifies their basic contempt for genuine justice, the Supreme Court’s politically reactionary majority rejected a prisoner’s request for DNA testing that could prove his innocence after 14 years’ imprisonment on a possibly false verdict for rape.
In the most appalling aspect of this decision, Chief Justice Roberts agreed with Alaskan prosecutors that a DNA test could definitively determine the prisoner’s guilt or innocence. In his ruling opinion, he nonetheless saw “no necessity for a ... far-reaching constitutional right of access to this type of evidence.”
In other words, don’t confuse the courts with scientific facts.
The Supreme Court heard this case (District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne) after Alaskan prosecutors appealed a federal appellate court order to allow the requested DNA test. The appellate judges sensibly ordered the test to resolve the prisoner’s dubious guilty verdict. Osborne agreed to pay for a DNA test of semen retained since commission of the 1994 crime (why did Alaskan officials retain this evidence if they intended to bar its use)?
Over the past 15 years, Cardoza University’s DNA-based Project Innocence has won 240 exonerations of falsely convicted prisoners. In 103 cases, guilty, but unconvicted perpetrators were identified for corrective prosecution.
These overturned verdicts have exposed documented instances of prosecutors’ racism, lethargy, corruption and sheer stubborn stupidity. They have also demonstrated the extreme fallibility of eyewitness identification.
Many prosecutors fight access to DNA evidence, even in the majority of states that allow it. Concern for their damaged reputations often outweighs prosecutors’ dedication to justice.
In one preposterous case before the Missouri Supreme Court, prosecutors argued that a convict should be executed even if DNA evidence proved his innocence. Some lawyers display a dedication to the sanctity of the judicial process even if it produces monstrous injustice.
Justice Samuel Alito buttressed Roberts’ opinion with a warning that court orders for DNA testing could induce prisoners “to play games with the criminal justice system,” drowning state courts in a flood of testing demands. States would incur significant costs, argued Alito, in a typical conservative exploitation of the slippery-slope fallacy.
In another irrelevant comment, Justice Alito appeared to contradict the Chief Justice’s admission that in this case DNA testing would definitively determine a just verdict. Alito claimed that even the most sophisticated DNA testing “often fails to provide absolute proof of anything.” If he disagreed with the Chief Justice, why didn’t he say so?
In the four dissenting justices’ rebuttal, John Paul Stevens denounced Alaska for refusing all DNA testing requests. He attacked the majority decision with this sensible conclusion: “There is no reason to deny access to the evidence, and there are many reasons to provide it.”
In this outrageous violation of common sense, the five “conservative” justices rejected constitutional principles of due process, the demands of simple justice and a soundly reasoned appellate court decision. The word to describe these troglodytes is not “conservative;” it is “primitive.”
C.W. Griffin has lived in Ahwatukee Foothills since 1988. He is a retired consulting engineer and a published author.